Ecstasy (Extase) – Gustav Machatý, 1933

Hedy Lamarr in Extase

Hedwig Eva Maria Kesler, better known as Hedy Lamarr, led a life as eventful as any of the characters she played on screen. Shortly before World War II, she ran away from her native Vienna to escape from her possessive husband, a rich arms dealer with ties to Mussolini and Hitler. Once in London, she met Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, who signed her up and promoted her as “the world’s most beautiful woman”.

Mayer persuaded her to change her name to Lamarr, putting a little distance between her controversial breakthrough role in Ecstasy, and she went on to have a successful career in Hollywood. During the war, she got together with her composer friend George Antheil to invent a frequency-hopping signal to prevent Allied torpedos from being tracked or jammed. In her later years, she opened a ski resort, got nicked for shoplifting, and gradually became a recluse. She also married and divorced six times before spending the last thirty-five years of her life single.

I heard about Ecstasy ages ago because of its two controversial scenes: one where our protagonist does a bit of skinny dipping, and another where she reaches an orgasm with her lover. I approached it with some caution because I sometimes struggle with pre-war movies, often finding them too dated and the cinematography too static and boxy. I was concerned that Ecstasy would be a chore, but luckily there was nothing to worry about…

The story is so slight that you could fit it on the back of a monogrammed handkerchief. We open with a happily married couple – Emil (Zvonimir Rogoz), a wealthy older man, and his luminous young bride Eva (Lamarr/Keisler), about to step across the threshold on their wedding night. We can see there are problems right away – Emil is drunk and can barely carry her into the apartment. While she eagerly awaits to consummate their marriage, he falls asleep in the bathroom.

In the following days, Emil is content to ignore his young wife, preferring to read his newspaper. She becomes increasingly dismayed by his distance and starts to feel lonely in their marriage. Quickly realising that they are not suited to each other, she files for divorce and returns to live with her father on the ranch.

One morning she awakes and decides to go for a horse ride and stops by a lake for a swim. Her horse runs away with her clothing, leaving her chasing behind naked. The horse attracts the attention of a hunky engineer called Adam (Aribert Mog). He is struck by the sight of the beautiful young woman hiding her modesty in the bushes before eventually giving her clothes back.

Adam and Eva in Extase

She doesn’t like him at first but can’t sleep for thinking of him. She returns to his hut and they make love. She finds fulfilment with Adam, but little does she know that a chance encounter between her new lover and Emil will lead to tragedy…

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Once Upon a Time in Paradise (Tenkrát v ráji) – Lordan Zafranović, Peter Pálka & Dan Krzywoň

World War II has provided inspiration for movies for over 80 years now, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of incredible tales. Sometimes I wonder, though, when I see a film as weak as Once Upon a Time in Paradise, whether the well is drying up and people are starting to run out of ideas.

That may seem unfair on the source material, Josef Urban’s novel and the true story that inspired it. It sounds like rousing stuff on paper – a talented rock climber hides from the Nazis in the wilderness, evading capture for years – and maybe that is where it should have stayed. It was a similar situation with the Laurent Binet’s page-turner HHhH – an intensely gripping read that spawned two insipid film versions. Maybe not every book needs a movie adaptation.

After a Saving Private Ryan-style bookend we meet Josef Smítka (Vavřinec Hradilek, an Olympic medal-winning canoeist in his first film role) hiking in the Tatras with his best friend Heinrich (Petr Smíd). They are on their way to tackle the Gerlach Peak, the highest mountain in the range. Along the way, they spot a beautiful young woman swimming naked in an alpine lake.

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The woman turns out to be Vlasta Brázdová (Vica Kerekes), a well-known writer and accomplished climber who is married to a much older man, the possessive painter Ota (Miroslav Etzler). Josef – or Joska to his friends – is instantly smitten. When the two friends run into trouble on the mountainside, it is Vlasta who abseils to rescue them…

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Wings of Christmas (Křídla Vánoc) – Karin Babinská, 2013

Tomás (Richard Krajčo) is possibly the movie-est movie optician in cinema history. He is a brooding tattooed hunk with rockstar looks who lives in a snowbound caravan just outside the Globus superstore where he works. With only his beloved horse to keep him company on those lonely nights spent listening to vinyl while looking smoulderingly handsome, he also juggles several affairs with local married women to fend off the solitude. He is always getting drunk and late for work, but that doesn’t matter – his boss is in love with him too.

The only woman he shares a platonic relationship with is Nina (Vica Kerekes), a forlorn girl who works on the gift-wrapping counter, which must suck because she hates Christmas. She lives alone in an apartment full of unpacked boxes and he is estranged from his family, so they end up spending the holidays together. Unsurprisingly, romantic feelings develop between them as they fry fish together and break into their place of work to steal basketfuls of groceries and booze…

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Hastrman – Ondřej Havelka, 2018

Hastrman 2018

One of my favourite folk tales from back home is the Wild Man of Orford, a small coastal village not far from where I grew up. In the 12th Century, a group of local fishermen hauled their nets to discover they’d caught a strange naked man covered in greenish hair. He was taken to the nearby castle for interrogation, but after six months his torturers realised he wasn’t able to speak. 

After that they let him exercise in the sea, stringing nets across the harbour so he couldn’t escape. The Wild Man easily swam under them, but each time he returned willingly to the castle. Eventually, he tired of life on the land, slipped under the nets one last time and vanished out to sea.

A similar water-dwelling character from the landlocked Czech Republic is the vodník, or hastrman, a water goblin popular in fairytales and made famous by folklorist Karel Jaromir Erben in his collection of ballads, Kytice. The creature lives in bodies of water and is capable of drowning the unwary if he’s in a bad mood, or providing bumper catches of fish for the locals if kept happy with sacrifices and offerings…

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2Grapes (2Bobule) – Vlad Lanné, 2009

Sequels often tend to go for bigger, faster, more. So what should we expect from 2Grapes (no, I don’t get the nonsense title either), the sequel to the mild romantic comedy hit Grapes?

I got to thinking about how the original film had at least three scenes that hinged on the explosive properties of burčák (young wine). So if we follow the bigger, faster, more model, what could be in store? Honza (Kryštof Hádek) returning to his criminal ways and using bottles of burčák to blow open a bank vault? Or perhaps converting his granddad’s battered old Citroen 2CV into a time machine, and using burčák to propel it to the 142kmh required to send it through time?

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Zelary (Želary) – Ondřej Trojan, 2003

As sturdy and dependable as its rugged leading man, György Cserhalmi, Želary is a classy wartime romantic drama that scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004. While the story suffers from over-familiarity, it earns its emotional payoff thanks to strong performances by an excellent cast and thoughtful direction by Ondřej Trojan.

The film opens in 1940s Nazi-occupied Prague as dapper surgeon Richard (Trojan) and his nurse/lover Eliška (Anna Geislerová) respond to an emergency call to save a seriously injured man. The patient requires an urgent transfusion and Eliška unquestioningly gives the much-needed blood.

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Richard and Eliška are also part of the resistance, and when her attempt to run a message to a contact falls foul of the Gestapo, the whole network is suddenly in mortal danger. Richard hastily emigrates, leaving Eliška with forged papers, and a friend tells her that if she wants to escape detection she must assume a new identity and leave the city in the company of Joza (Cserhalmi), the man whose life she helped save…

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